A few weeks ago in this space, I commented on the re-emergence of one of the mainstays of recession-era reporting, finance division: the death-of-Wall-Street-as-we-know-it story. Filled with dire predictions that the finance business will never be the same again, these pieces are also marked by their clichés -- the downtrodden trader forced to give up his summer home or the unemployed banker who finally finds fulfillment running a bed and breakfast in Vermont.
A close relative to this genre of story is the poor-rich-guy piece, in which bonus-deprived Wall Streeters or other professional-types bemoan the loss of lavish lifestyles -- or their inability to have ever achieved their definition of a lavish lifestyle in the first place. Thick with complaints about the high cost of everything from sushi dinners to private schools to urban real estate, these stories, unlike their death-of-Wall-Street cousins, seem to have no larger point than to ridicule the six-figure earners who are foolish enough to whine about their finances to a reporter. It's journalism of the most voyeuristic kind: Check out the Wall Streeter complaining about having to do his dishes by hand! Get a load of the plutocrat forced to settle for discount salmon at $5.99 a pound!
These are some of the choice tidbits that will live in infamy thanks to a wildly popular and much-celebrated recent Bloomberg story chronicling what its headline called "Wall Street bonus withdrawal." When the anecdote-stuffed piece appeared, Gawker half-jokingly renewed a call for its author, Max Abelson, to win a Pulitzer; Columbia Journalism Review's The Audit purred that the story's "concept is good and the execution is better"; and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism rang up Abelson to learn "how he got the story." "I make an embarrassing amount of calls and send out a lurid amount of emails," Abelson tells the center's website, BusinessJournalism.org.
Good for Abelson, who clearly has a knack for getting people who should know better to share intimate details of their financial lives that they really should keep to themselves. (Indeed, Andrew Schiff, the primary villain of the piece, is a communications and marketing director for his brother's brokerage firm. In other words, he's a flack.) And it's hard to deny the story's timeliness, readability and entertainment value; after all, who can resist a bit of good old-fashioned schadenfreude, especially in these days of heightened class warfare?
But the media's love affair with the piece and its glee in mocking its subjects is a bit, well, silly. First of all, the Bloomberg story hardly qualifies as investigative journalism and offers little in the way of news; that rich people, however you define that term, don't like making or having less money than they used to -- who does? -- is hardly a startling or even useful insight. Then there's the hypocrisy of making fun of the story's participants for trying to save money by clipping coupons and reading supermarket circulars. After all, hasn't the personal finance press -- aka the latte police -- been offering such absurd advice for years?
No matter. The general consensus is that the people in the Bloomberg piece should just shut up so we can all better focus on those with real money problems. CJR's Audit, for one, offers up The Huffington Post's first entry in a planned yearlong series on the lives of America's middle class and poor as an antidote for those who didn't see the "ridiculousness" of the complaints lodged by Abelson's whiners. Indeed, HuffPost's story on a 23-year-old named Brooklyn Davis is wrenching. Poor, unemployed and behind on child care payments, Davis hopes to land a minimum-wage cleaning job at a hotel that will cost him $5.50 a day in bus fare. "Statistically speaking, Davis, like his parents, faces surprisingly high odds against ever escaping poverty -- regardless of what happens in the wider economy," the story reports.
The Audit is correct; Davis' woes certainly puts the lack of a dishwasher in perspective. But while the media has made Schiff something of a household name, it has done relatively little to publicize Davis and his plight. The HuffPost story has not been widely cited or linked to by others, and its author, Tom Zeller Jr., has yet to be celebrated à la Abelson. Maybe that will come. The truth is, for an eyeball-hungry media, it's a lot more fruitful to make fun of the rich than to dig into the real and pressing problems of the poor. Schadenfreude beats empathy every day.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.